In the months of May and June 2014, I conducted over a dozen interviews with some of the top players in the Tunisian media sector. These interviews were all part of the research that went into my subsequent report for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab’s, A Tale of Two Decrees (June 11, 2014). The report documents the fight over the sector, efforts at reform, the importance of reform for democracy, and the threats against reform.
Of the interviews I conducted, three stand out as particularly important. So, I am publishing excerpts of these three interviews here.
The first is with Nabil Karoui, the head of one of the most important private TV stations in Tunisia. His channel, Nessma, was one of only two private TV stations allowed to operate in Tunisia prior to the uprising of 2011. He is now fighting tooth-and-nail the reforms proposed by the media reform commission HAICA.
The second is with Hichem Snoussi, one of the nine members of HAICA’s board. He offers tough words against the heads of private TV stations (without naming them) and lays out the challenges facing media reform.
The third is with Sami Ben Gharbia, one of the cofounders of the citizen journalist blogging website Nawaat. Nawaat is one of the very few groups in the Tunisian media sector that was completely banned under Ben Ali, and Ben Gharbia was a political refugee for speaking out against the previous regime. His analysis of the way that the media has been used against the goals of the uprising and against democratic reform are particularly interesting.
Interview with Nabil Karoui, the head of Nessma TV (June 6, 2014)
One journalist told me that you are closely aligned with Nida Tunis, the political party led Beji Caid Sebsi. How do you respond?
I am the guy who put together Beji Sebsi and [Ennahda leader Rached] Ghannouchi in Ramadan, one year ago.
I know there were others who also helped broker a dialogue between them, for example businessman Slim Riahi hosted them in Paris, correct?
Slim Riahi, he just rented a plane for Ghannouchi. But I am the guy who organized the meeting and I organized some other meetings at my place. We organized six or seven meetings and you see the results: Tunisia is good, it’s not as bad as Egypt or Libya because of that.
I’m a friend of Ghannouchi, as I’m close to Sebsi as well, and I like both of them and I help because it’s a small country and we don’t have the traditions of democracy and we don’t have tradition of media as well. Real media, because with Ben Ali I don’t think we had media.
Some have said that you are against the cahier de charge because it bans the heads of TV stations from also running political parties, and there are reports that you have started your own party, Tahya Tunis. What is your response?
I don’t have a political party. It was a rumor. I don’t have a plan to make a political party.
We don’t like the cahier de charge because it is unprofessional and impossible to apply. The cahier de charge transgresses at least eight laws.
We start to think as Tunisians that creating an independent structure like HAICA is really a panacea. Which is completely stupid because now we have nine people [that] issue their own law, and they apply it, and no one can control them.
HAICA, these guys don’t understand what it is to regulate. The nine of them are coming from ministries -- they are civil servants. And they are bad civil servants, because if they were successful in their business, they wouldn’t want to come to HAICA. If you have a good judge and he is successful, why does he have to come to HAICA? Now we have nine civil servants, they don’t understand the role, they don’t understand media, they never talk to us. Even the business of advertising they don’t understand. And they decided, because they are civil servants, to create a new ministry, because when civil servants are together, they don’t know how to regulate. Their reflex, their DNAs, they spent 20 years as civil servants, they think they have the power.
Let me tell you, they give us a license for seven years and the license is not renewable. Can you believe an industry like television can spend millions of dollars on studio on people etc. but after seven years it stops? [HAICA] can renew it or not renew it, it’s their call, and they don’t have to tell you why. This is in the cahier de charge.
We’re losing money, all of us because of the crisis. We are really bankrupt because of the crisis. The market, the business of advertising in TV and radio it shrunk by 70% in three years. We lost 70% of value of market in Tunisia.
These guys, they’re deciding to give us eight minutes-per-hour for ads. We don’t have ads. And 12 [minutes-per-hour] in Ramadan. In Ramadan, we do famous series. If I sell my 12 minutes all around Ramadan, I will match half of my cost. The public [TV stations] have no restrictions; they can do half hour ads, but the private has to be restricted for eight minutes. They don’t understand anything about the business, the TV stations. They decide that if you have one TV station, you can’t buy another one. They think we are all Murdochs, but we are all so miserable. They want to control us.
You’re saying that the cahier de charge makes it impossible for you to stay profitable?
They are ridiculous. Of course, we can’t pay it. I have to compete against MBC whose owner is from the Saudi family, with Al Jazeera, with Dubai television stations run by the ruler of Dubai. We are the small things.
In what country in the world, in what business if you have one TV [station] you cant have another TV [station]? Maybe they can say someone can’t have 50% of the audience in a sophisticated country. We don’t even have a majority of the audience.
They oblige me in the cahier de charge to have 30% journalists [as employees]. Why should I have that? If my business is only entertainment, if I’m only doing series, why should I hire journalists?
Do you believe that there should be no regulation of the private TV stations?
This cahier can stop our freedom of speech. Even when I had a license under Ben Ali, I didn’t have to send the programs before for approval. Is that regulation or censorship? Regulation means there are rules -- they don’t have to go into the business [ends of things].
HAICA is a clan: leftist, communist, they pushed law 116, and behind them there are one or two small parties. Now they want to get their hands on media.
They called me last summer, they told me your programs are not balanced. Ennahda boycotted me, they wouldn’t come - what do you want me to do? [I told them:] this is the [phone] number of Ennahda - next time I want to do a show, call them and oblige them to come to me. [Ennahda] went to another channel six times and not to me. Sebsi came to me three times and not to [TV station] Hannibal -- oblige them to go them.
There is another channel that’s [controlled by] Islamists and [Ennahda members appear on that channel] every day. Why should we be balanced? We’re not a public channel. I told [HAICA]: “Do you think Fox [news] is balanced?”
Do you think that the cahier de charge will succeed in being applied?
[The cahier de charge], it’s stopped. It’s inapplicable. We’re in court. [The cahier is] against the law; it can’t pass.
[HAICA] called me last time to ask me if I have dirty money and I said: Yes, what’s your problem? Are you policemen? Are you attorneys or judges? HAICA [members] now take the places of judges, or police or the central bank. They gave themselves this power.
They have this idea, they are like knights arriving to save the republic from dirty money, from politics which mixes with money, that mixes with the media. Of course we’re lucky they’re here, they are pure the people who come. One journalist asked me: ‘Do you contest the independence of the people in HAICA?” I said: ‘No, I contest the independence of 11 million Tunisians. Who is independent?’
If HAICA is not independent, who is behind them?
CPR [Congress for the Republic party], [President Moncef] Marzouki nominated them all and pushed them. What CPR did was not nominate them all through the presidency. The woman who was the head of the syndicate [SNJT, National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists former head Najiba Hamrouni], she was under them.
Today in HAICA, there are three who had problems with political divisions. [The other] six guys don’t understand anything.
What will happen to HAICA?
HAICA is a joke my friend. HAICA is temporary. Now these idiots found a way to put HAICA in the constitution.
There is an article that says after the future election of parliament they will issue a new law of media and after they will nominate a constitutional HAICA. This HAICA is just temporary. They will disappear in December. In December they will leave, all of them. We saw the danger; all the parties saw the danger as well. We are writing a new law of media. We don’t care who they nominate; if we have the text of the law to protect us we don’t care.
Who do you mean by “we”? Who is writing the new media law?
It’s our union with the UGTT, with political parties; it will be consensual.
Interview with Hichem Snoussi, one of nine board members of the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) (May 15, 2014)
What is HAICA?
It’s a regulatory body. You find these bodies in democratic countries. It’s an intermediary between executive power, society, the different actors and journalists, and its role is not control; its role is [to determine] how to apply the independence and freedom of media, all while respecting the rules, be they judicial or ethical.
What are HAICA’s priorities?
Practically, there are three priorities for HAICA. The first is how to organize the media for the electoral phase, and there it requires many decisions and lots of setting up, and for this reason, HAICA will set up a monitoring service. [It’s about ensuring] pluralism in the media, diversity, access to the media for political actors. This action will be done in collaboration with [the independent electoral commission] ISIE.
The second priority it’s the transition of state media to public media, towards a public media that renders a public service for Tunisian society. For example, when you see the structure of the state media until this day, it is the same structure of the Ben Ali epoch, the epoch of the dictator. Now, it is necessary to install a new governance. HAICA, for example, we started with insisting that the nomination of managing directors [of state media institutions] must not be done by the government. [This is] because the government at the end of the day, has a political sensibility; it represents a political orientation, and for this reason [managing directors of media] must be named in accordance with norms which are objective. They must be independent; they must not represent the political parties. We have to protect the independence of these directors against the government, and not just the government, but others who can influence them.
The third priority for us is freedom of expression. It’s how to protect and guarantee this right of free expression in a society that does not have the tradition of freedom of expression. Unfortunately there are a lot of journalists and media bosses that have misunderstood the freedom of expression and for them, everything is authorized. It is necessary to make people understand that if they really want to protect this freedom of expression, it is necessary to adapt to international norms in this domain.
How would you describe the overall media environment today, nearly three years after the uprising?
There are the same reflexes, even if Ben Ali isn’t there. The first priority is to reform the structure, because the HAICA is not a powerful structure that can do everything.
Normally, HAICA is not a party to conflict; it plays the role of arbiter. But unfortunately, some media executive want to give the expression that HAICA has made itself a party to the conflict. HAICA has presented the cahier de charge. Of course there are obligations in the cahier, especially for the old media executives who have big institutions since the old regime. They don’t want these clauses, like the anti-monopoly law. They don’t want the limits on advertisements. The cahier bans political parties from owning broadcast stations -- they don’t want that. They say this is against human rights, that it’s anti-constitutional. This is not true, if one looks at the big democratic countries, they have anti-concentration laws, limits to advertisements. For example in Norway, the UK, Austria, Germany, it’s illegal for a political party to have a TV or radio itself, because it will open the door to propaganda for the old practices, the bad practices. That is why HAICA is against it. We have some problems with some media executives, the big bosses.
Who are these media executives?
They are the executives who owned radio and TV during the old regime. During the old regime there wasn’t much radio, there was the state TV and radio, and there was nothing except two private TV stations and three private radios. Other citizens didn’t have an opportunity to have a TV or radio station. To have a TV or Radio was to have a great fortune. They were influential on public opinion. We [HAICA] don’t want to do what was done, for example, in Czechoslovakia after communism where they banned those people from working. For us, no, we want those people to work, to have the right to work.
Is transparency in the media sector a priority for HAICA? For example, I know the businessman Slim Riahi supposedly purchased the frequency of the Ettounsiya TV station, but the details of the channel’s ownership still seem opaque. Couldn’t this opacity be a problem in reforming the sector?
Thank you for that question. In the cahier de charge, there are clauses that concern transparency. TV stations must be publicize their sources [of funding], their advertising volume. If they sell ownership, they must inform the authorities. The executives are against these clauses as well; they say HAICA is becoming a financial service or something like this.
The challenges before HAICA seem quite daunting. How do you hope to succeed?
Tunisians chose an open approach. It’s not the same approach as Egypt. We have allies around the world. This open approach benefited from people with competence, whether from the Arab world or The West. International organizations, civil society, they helped enormously this democratic transition, and if today we have this respect for international standards and norms, if we have fought for a constitution based on these norms, it is thanks first to Tunisian intelligence but also thanks to our allies and civil society. I think international civil society can play a positive role.
Is levying a fine HAICA’s main tool for enforcing regulation?
We try, since it’s a new culture, to resolve issues in a pedagogical approach, but in certain times, we are obliged to [levy fines].
The revenue collected from fines, where does it go?
They go into the treasury.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Tunisian media landscape?
It is necessary to not combine the three: politics, money and media. We have seen the results with Berlusconi, with Murdoch. For HAICA, it’s clear: leaders of political parties or political parties themselves don’t have the right to own a radio or TV. Someone who wants to invest in audiovisual domain can’t have more than one radio and one TV; it’s an anti-concentration law. We find the same law in democratic countries.
In pushing for good practice, we have real allies. But as usual, the allies in this domain are people who are not influential; they are intellectuals, democrats. But for them they are in the process of putting pressure, even on political actors. Unfortunately some political parties in Tunisia don’t have a democratic background. They don’t have great sensitivity in this field. They are old communists, or old nationalists or Islamists. For these three leanings, they are not founded ideologically on individual liberties. For us, whether we want or not, we are in the context of individual liberties. That’s why we have difficulty making these old political partisans understand the concept, the philosophy of freedom of expression.
Under the American system, the concept of press freedom is a bit more absolute than in most countries. Even an interview with Osama Bin Laden was broadcast in America. However, when Tunisian journalist Samir Wafi interviewed a Salafi preacher last year who expressed views interpreted as sympathetic to religious militants, he was condemned by most Tunisian journalists and HAICA banned the segment from being rebroadcast. Could you explain this decision?
When there is a discourse that encourages hate and violence, there we must treat them according to international norms, especially article three [“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”] of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are limits in international norms, for the rights of expression.
[The preacher], he demanded that people prepare themselves to be martyrs against Tunisian citizens. One must not be idealist, even naïve, in this point.
Interview with Sami Ben Gharbia, co-founder of the citizen journalism blog Nawaat (May 22, 2014)
What is Nawaat?
It was a collective blog first. It’s an open space where everyone can publish his opinion and debate about subjects that were supposed to be taboo, from human rights abuses to corruption, nepotism, all kinds of stuff that mainstream media in Tunisia wasn’t really covering. Of course we were censored in Tunisia since we started, a couple weeks after the website launched, so people from within the country could only access our website through circumvention technologies, proxies, Tor etc.
What is your background?
Well I was a political refugee at the time in the Netherlands, since 1998, first as an asylum seeker then as a refugee. So I fled Tunisia. I was arrested and then I managed to flee. I lived in the Netherlands for the last almost 13 years.
Since the fall, we used to live abroad, all of us, the three founders and one collaborator. Then we came back home, at least three of us. We established this NGO, this collective blog became an NGO. We got our first staff and we got our first funding in 2011. Before that we never had any funding; we were financing the project ourselves. It didn’t require a lot of funding, just the hosting service and the domain name. But after the revolution we managed to get an entire staff.
What is the focus of Nawaat?
We cover all kinds of political events, sit-ins, demonstrations, social economic topics. We have a strong focus on the investigative journalism aspect of our work; it’s kind of a new pillar. We have a good section of leaks. Most of our investigative work is based on leaks that we get through Facebook, through electronic means. We also have a platform for this service, Nawaat Leaks, which allows people to send us their documenets while protecting their identities, so even us we don’t know we don’t get any information about IP addresses or geographic location or email address.
What is the role of Nawaat in the Tunisian media landscape?
The role is to push the limits of what can be said, what can be covered and to be beyond this polarized scene of ideological and political polarization and try to address all kinds of topics without political or ideological considerations. So we try to be beyond all these clashes and we target everyone and everything with critical distance and in-depth investigation and articles. So we don’t do desk news, we don’t cover daily events what’s going on. We try to deconstruct political discourse and deconstruct events and go deep into the behind-the-scene happening.
Do you believe that an activist can be a journalist? Where do you draw the line?
We don’t draw the line. We never pretend to be journalists. We’re not journalists although we have in our staff good, established journalists. We are rooted in the advocacy and activism field. We still try to have this info-activism, or media-activism formula and medium that allows us not to be neutral in certain values and principles. We are not neutral. We are objective but not neutral. We stand for certain values and principles that we defend and advocate for and we push the limits for that: free speech, human rights, free access to information, anti-censorship, anti-repression, anti-corruption, anti-nepotism, and we work towards reforming all those things.
How would you describe the current Tunisian media landscape?
If you are talking about TV or radio they still kind of establish things that are linked to parties or certain groups or lobbies, they push for a certain political agenda or a certain vision of Tunisian society or identity. There is a strong link between businessmen and media, so it’s not quite independent media at all. This is a struggle that the HAICA is still trying to reform at least in terms of this cahier de charge. From our perspective, we try to analyze the discourse. We are writing many articles on the journalistic discourse within the news outlets; we try to analyze the trends of discourse, during the troika government, during the Jomaa government – what changed? The semantics, the terms and the words they are using and trying to deconstruct them and understand what they’re doing and how they want to shape public opinion about certain issues and topics.
Do you think Nawaat’s work is putting pressure for internal reform in other media outlets?
We don’t worry; we don’t care about what they are and what they’re doing. We try to push the roof so high that at least maybe some initiatives, mainly grassroots or citizen media initiatives, could emerge from this media ecosystem. I still see the media ecosystem as polarized, especially from the Bardo sit-ins, or even before. They hijacked certain demands of the revolution and turned them into an identity crisis: Tunisia whether it is religious or secular, the problem of the veil, exaggerated terrorism rhetoric. All those debates that emerged through media and by the media for certain purposes, I think the goal was to hijack the real demands of the revolution from justice, equality and dignity and freedom to certain topics that don’t really touch the core of why we toppled the dictatorship.
What do you think about HAICA and its current efforts to reform the sector?
I think they’re doing good work, although we can find a few critiques within the cahier de charge, but still it is a body that was created recently and that tried at least to regulate the media scene, mainly these media that are influential, because they enter every house and every car and every taxi and every shutter in Tunisia, so we need a kind of regulation. I’m not calling for censorship or auto-regulation, but at least a body, an independent body, that is beyond any ideology or political struggle that tries to push for the respect for the ethical code of the media. That doesn’t mean that it is perfect, or that it doesn’t make some mistakes, but if we look at the struggle between the owners of media, TV and radio, and HAICA, I stand on the side of HAICA against those businessmen who own and shape public opinion.
How can Nawaat compete with the traditional unreformed media outlets that still reach a broader audience?
We are adopting what we call the long tail of journalism. We try to publish stories that survive the political or socio-economic events that become reference that researchers or journalists or activists or politicians or ourselves will use later on for deeper investigation or deeper research on what’s going on in Tunisia…
Our audience is not an average citizen. The audience that we target and try to reach are not normal citizens. Our audience is activists, politicians, the establishment, whether it’s politics or security or economy or social movement. We try to influence the influencers.
People who read Washington Post or New York Times long articles still are people that are in the establishment or on the margins of the establishment. The average citizens won’t read, they will read tabloids and they will read bullshit stories. That’s not our audience.
What is Nawaat’s editorial policy?
We don’t have an editorial policy. At least we try to have, every article should at least have documents, leaks, graph, picture that support a story, or video that support a story, interviews with concerned political figures or people that we are trying to write about.
Do you think it is possible for those journalists who worked at a time when real journalism was illegal under Ben Ali can be the same ones who reform the sector now after the uprising?
We need a generation of journalists and activists, and they are emerging and they will emerge and they will be stronger in the future. I don’t think it is possible to reform a sector that was corrupted, that was part of the propaganda machine and an arm of the Ben Ali regime by will or by pressure.
Now in the university they are giving a course on investigative journalism with high-profile teachers from around the world coming to Tunisia to train people about investigative journalism. I think this trend will get bigger in the future.
We are the first to do this kind of journalism. They started talking about investigative journalism in Tunisia because of Nawaat. Nawaat established this trend in Tunisia. Although we did a lot of mistakes, we’re not professional journalists, we don’t claim to be, but we are learning from our experience and we are refining our expertise.
What mistakes did Nawaat make?
Regarding security leaks that we released and the investigation that we ran around… we relied on leaks most of the time coming from security people, and by experience, those whistleblowers giving info from within the security apparatus are manipulating the media for a certain agenda, and I think we were in a way manipulated by them.